4 August 2021

Echoes of Canberra homelessness in A Reckoning in Boston

| Jeremy Jones
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Poster for A Reckoning in Boston

Directed by James Rutenbeck, A Reckoning in Boston explores homelessness. Photo: A Reckoning in Boston.

A new documentary screening this Friday at the National Film and Sound Archive, A Reckoning in Boston, shows the inspirational and challenging stories of those facing homelessness.

The director of the documentary, James Rutenbeck, explores homelessness in Boston, a city being gentrified by property development while 40,000 Bostonians are homeless. To communicate the stories of the city, Mr Rutenbeck follows the lives of two students, Kafi Dixon and Carl Chandler, who are studying Humanities in a program for disadvantaged people.

A Reckoning in Boston highlights the inspirational stories of the Clemente program in Boston – a program also running in Canberra and Goulburn.

Kafi Dixon and Carl Chandler are engaging, optimistic characters whose stories explore racist and misogynistic structures and emphasise owning property.

“I got derailed by the reality of their lives,” Mr Rutenbeck reflects in his narration. “Knowledge is power, but so is property, the ability to get a loan or pass wealth to the next generation … not to mention peace, safety.”

Mr Chandler is a tender, reflective retiree living on a small disability pension. He raised his two daughters as a single father in a small apartment and slept in a closet. The Clemente program is his chance at an education and an opportunity to continue his studies at Harvard University.

Kafi Dixon aspires to build Boston’s first urban farming co-up, an equity-based initiative for women of colour called the “Common Good Cooperative”. She dreamt of being a marine biologist, but instead she’s a Boston bus driver with the 4:30 am shift. Perhaps her belief in “the healing power of safe spaces” is a reaction to her traumatising experiences living in homeless shelters.

Ms Dixon is challenged by the city government and by not-for-profit organisations who attempt to limit her agency to control the project. Race is a key issue. Mr Rutenbeck is surprised that she hasn’t “given up on white people all together”, referencing white people as the gatekeepers to success.

No trespassing sign

Kafi Dixon faces obstacles from local government and not-for-profits. Photo: A Reckoning in Boston.

Clemente was developed for people who face homelessness, were previously incarcerated, and/or face barriers to education. It aims to break the cycle of inequality and social injustice for marginalised people by giving them meaningful opportunities to engage with society. In Canberra, the program is run in partnership with St Vincent de Paul (Vinnies) and the Australian Catholic University (ACU).

Exploring homelessness through Mr Rutenbeck’s lens may feel familiar for a Canberra audience. Canberra has the highest median wage per capita, yet 2853 Canberrans are on the affordable housing waiting list.

Mr Rutenbeck’s exploration is challenging. He describes himself as a “middle-class man from a well to do suburb” documenting impoverished and multicultural parts of Boston. He thanks those involved in the documentary for wanting to “shake me, wake me up”.

Canberra and Goulburn’s Clemente program coordinator, Samantha Hayes, says that similar societal gaps existing in Boston are here in Canberra.

“We watched the movie and just thought, this is us! If you came into a class, you would see it is very similar: Clemente students, despite all odds, enter into an education system.”

Students without an address, such as residents of women’s shelters, can’t study at tertiary institutions; however, these restrictions don’t apply in the Clemente program.

“This way, we can help as many people as possible, including migrants and refugees,” Ms Hayes says.

Meagan Charlton

Former Clemente student Meagan Charlton continuing her education Photo: St Vincent de Paul Society Canberra/Goulburn.

Erin MacArthur, the director of community engagement for Vinnies, says another major element to the program is social tether – the need to be a part of the community.

“The youth team can check in with participants of a tutoring program about their housing situation and connect them to programs that will assist them with finding housing,” says Ms MacArthur.

“We can make that connection to assist them with any challenges they might be facing.”

Ms Hayes says, “In Boston, despite the crisis, the Right to Shelter is a commitment by their government. It is not yet a commitment by the ACT Government”, but she thinks it should be.

National Homelessness Week runs from 1 to 7 August. This year the theme is ‘Everybody’s Home’, examining how the impact of homelessness is felt by the entire community.

For more information about A Reckoning in Boston, visit the National Film and Sound Archive.

If you are homeless or at risk of homelessness, OneLink provides information and connections for support services in the ACT, including services for families and young people. A list of front-line community organisations can be found at VolunteeringACT and ACT Government funded homelessness services.

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Interesting to read about Clemente program in Canberra.

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